Leader as Curator
The future is all around us. The trick is to find what parts of it matter most to your organization. RADAR looks at an emerging new leadership skill: the art of curation.
By Peter Short
Today, it’s estimated that human knowledge doubles every 12 months. To keep pace with this exponential explosion of information, analysis, and data, it is vital that leaders make sense of it for their people. And to do that, leaders must become effective curators.
Many think of a curator in the most traditional sense: a person who works in an art gallery and specializes in a niche subject or art historian with advanced degrees charged with selecting what audiences see from a massive collection, like the Smithsonian’s 137 million objects. Without curators, it would take 100 years of 24-7 viewing to see it all. The curators’ selections distill that collection into a manageable experience.
But the role of curator has changed, expanded beyond its traditional definition. The modern curator takes an active role in shaping, or even co-creating, content. Curation now involves everything from initial discovery to final audience experience.
Erinn Roos-Brown at Wesleyan University’s Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance describes it:
“Today’s curator is more like a television producer than an academic scholar — they need to capture the attention of the audience through entertainment and engagement. Curators need to be open, curious, communicative, and collaborative. They are sociologists and anthropologists as much as they are art historians.”
RADAR believes that leaders, too, must embrace the role of modern curator.
In the new normal of constant change and disruption, where experiences are rarely fixed or linear, it’s imperative that leaders help their organizations develop an up-and-out perspective. But this means more than simply directing people to a volume of information. We all have access to the Internet.
For a culture to harness this external perspective, leaders need to do more than simply collect and organize information and content for display. Leaders need to provide context and make sense of things, to pose questions, and connect ideas. They need to clear pathways for people and synthesize data, information, and even wisdom that enable unique responses and original ideas.
Today, we’re seeing an emerging group of leaders do just that by using a wide and unique range of curatorial skills within their organizations. Across that range, the common thread is always the same: sharing ideas in meaningful, effective ways that create a sense of aligned foresight.
Create a Better Understanding of the Changing World
Curating an experience that can help an organization develop important new perspective is no easy task. Most organizations are already overwhelmed by day-to-day responsibilities. This is where TED Institute comes in.
As arguably one of the most important curated experiences running today, TED brings together a wide array of perspective and thinking. TED Institute does the same, but for organizations looking to make sense of the world for their own people.
Specifically, TED Institute partners with corporations to coach and develop a TED-like event, teaching a team within the organization how to pull out and share its best ideas. It then guides the owners of those ideas into translating them into engaging stories as a TED Talk. Past partners include Unilever, Intel, and StateStreet, and talks have ranged from the future of global food production to the challenge and value of developing a startup inside a giant corporation.
One talk by Myriam Sidibe, Global Social Mission director for Lifebuoy, a leading health soap brand at Unilever, focused on the impact washing one’s hands can have on the health and well-being of a community. Myriam’s work is meant to get people to understand what she describes as the best invention in public health: a bar of soap. The challenge for this talk was to elevate the conversation around a mundane act and to connect with other leaders and resources inside the organization to amplify Lifebuoy’s mission to help people live longer, healthier lives.
Myriam Sidibe, Global Social Mission director for Lifebuoy
Curating Is as Simple as Sharing
Curating, though, doesn’t have to be a grand display of information or insight. It can exist in the simple act of sharing. Comprised of former education professionals and designers, Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation is dedicated to helping schools transform through people-centered design practices. Led by Chief Innovation Officer Bo Adams, MVIFI is constantly exploring new and emerging thinking to inform schools with their work.
The challenge MVIFI faces is how to harness that thinking and make sense of it so it can be applied to clients.
To aid and accelerate their work, Adams and a small group within the institute have tapped into technology, specifically an app called Diigo. Diigo is a social bookmarking tool that allows Adams’ team to bookmark and annotate content that everyone in his team can see and comment on. The app also lets the team characterize content, organize it into outlines they use for specific projects, and share the best of what they’re reading on both the institute’s blog and their Slack channel. Adams believes this fairly simple system creates a sophisticated filter that deepens his team’s shared understanding.
“It’s given me a greater sense of what my team thinks is important. It helps us co-identify patterns and trends that affect our work and the larger school community we partner with. It makes We smarter than Me.”
Essentially, Adams and his team curate collectively, holding long ongoing conversations around ideas and then synthesizing them into an aligned perspective. This alignment then allows MVIFI to translate that perspective into action for its clients.
In an age of constant change and disruption, where volatility is the new norm, corporate leaders will have to adopt the same wide-open, multi-disciplinary approach as curators. They can no longer be the manager of the day or even
They must proactively discover new perspective and make connections across a wide range of information and analysis. They need to create a better understanding of the changing world, share and synthesize new insights and ideas, and help their organization adapt its thinking and unlock new possibilities.
Bo Adams, Executive Director of Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation
A Manufacturer Redesigns Its Future
In his early 60s, Ray Anderson, the late founder and CEO of Interface, a leading carpet tile manufacturer, described himself as an unabashed industrialist. That is, until someone left a copy of The Ecology of Commerce, by environmentalist Paul Hawken, on Ray’s desk. It created an epiphany — that Ray’s business was plundering the earth.
This moment rewired Ray’s sense of purpose. He committed to changing the way his company manufactured carpet tile, a petroleum-intensive product.
This set him off on a journey of discovery and connection. He reached out and embraced a wide range of perspective, devouring the works of Rachel Carson, Donella Meadows, and Al Gore, to name a few, and befriending pioneers in the field of sustainability like John Picard.
But to effectively share it with his organization, Ray had to become the consummate sensemaker. He had to introduce, explain, and make relevant an idea — sustainability — that was completely foreign to a company based in LaGrange, Georgia. And he did this by sharing “persistently and consistently,” as he often put it, what was at stake for the planet, what was possible for Interface and the industry as a whole, and how the company was going to close the gap between how it operated and how it wanted to operate.
This approach to curation allowed the culture to tap into knowledge and expertise from unfamiliar sources and curate new relationships with designers, like David Oakey, and even biologists, like Janine Benyus, the leading thinker on biomimicry.
As Interface began to reduce its environmental impact and its operating costs, while raising its market share and its margins, Anderson discovered a much wider audience than he imagined. Interface quickly became a resource to companies ranging from Nike to Walmart who wanted to learn from Interface’s experience.
Ray Anderson, Late Founder & CEO of Interface
Myriam Sidibe & Ray Anderson (bottom) images courtesy of TED.com